The South American rain forest is the perfect environment for a dank, uncomfortable thriller. It’s brutally competitive; life is thrillingly vulnerable; you can’t safely touch or taste anything, and, beyond a few yards, you can see nothing at all. Even Amerindians are anxious in this environment, and credit it with all manner of horrors. In my own experience, it is, in every sense, a spine-tingling environment.
So novelist Edward Docx has chosen well in the setting for his dark tale. It’s not a complex plot but there’s the constant feeling that you’re not seeing the whole picture, and that nothing is quite as it seems. Docx is a master of disquiet, and brilliantly captures the bewildering effect of the forest. His hero, an entomologist called Dr Forle, describes how the jungle seems to colonise his mind, as if ‘a hundred rogue seeds’ have been planted among the ‘clean-kempt prose of scientific method’.
The story itself has something of the Conrad about it. Dr Forle finds himself far upriver, in an unnamed South American country. There, he resumes the research begun by a friend, mysteriously killed in a plane crash. Their work centres on a particular species of ants, who poison whole areas of forest (the ‘Devil’s Garden’ of the title), in order to encourage their favoured plant. Here is biology at its most intriguing. The combined dry weight of the world’s ants, Docx tells us, is about the same as that of man!
But there’s also a purpose to this lavish entomology. Like the ants’ world, the jungle is home to plenty of others who won’t stint at destruction to ensure the success of their own. These are the warring tribes, the corrupt officials, the oilmen, and the cocaine producers. Here, ‘Man is a monster of the deep … a creature of casual atrocity.’ Somehow, Dr Forle’s ended up in the thick of a struggle, and the story turns to his efforts to escape.
The way out is strewn with sinister characters. Docx has rightly recognised that the jungle is fertile ground for eccentricity, and he’s produced a memorable cast of misfits. Arguably, the plot is slightly over-peopled, but they’re all portrayed with great artistry and imagination. In particular, there’s the teenage torturer; the carnivorous army captain; the mad cook, and a rapidly deconstructing missionary. At least one character — ‘The Judge’ — is almost entirely a creature of magical realism. He speaks in complex aphorisms, mutated by whiskey and cynicism, a caricature of the dwindling vestiges of civilised order.
In this immensely intelligent novel, few people acquit themselves well. Were this a judgment on South America, it would be too bleak. But this is a tale of wider application, exploring the stand-off between Man and his selfish gene. Lovers of this continent may also worry that, whilst the book’s Europeans are invariably noble, the locals are all either weird and wild, or just plain nasty. However — in the context of this particular tale — that’s probably forgivable. Besides, the real heroes here are, of course, the ants.